Dozens team up for complex rescue of trapped orca in B.C. lagoon - The Globe and Mail

Dozens team up for complex rescue of trapped orca in B.C. lagoon

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The orphaned orca calf who was stranded after its pregnant mother died after being caught on a gravel bed when the tide went out more than 12 days ago is spotted in a lagoon near Zeballos, B.C., on April 4. CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Paul Cottrell is Canada’s leading whale rescuer on the West Coast. Since 2007, he has helped free scores of cetaceans entangled in fishing nets, stranded on land or stubbornly hanging around in dangerous waters. None of these efforts has been as complex as the one he faces now with a young, orphaned killer whale trapped in a tidal lagoon and facing starvation.

The two-year-old Bigg’s killer whale and its mother threaded a narrow channel into the lagoon near the remote village of Zeballos, on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, two weeks ago.

Whales likely hunted in this body of water in the past, but a logging bridge built decades ago has rendered access almost impossible. The mother, which was pregnant, ended up stranded on a sandbar just inside the lagoon, where she died March 23 despite efforts by the local First Nations, who were trained by Mr. Cottrell and had specialized flotation equipment for the job.

The focus immediately pivoted to saving the calf, which still depended on its mother for food.

“That animal is not going to survive in there,” said Mr. Cottrell, who is the Pacific marine mammals co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and British Columbia’s only certified whale disentangler, in an interview Thursday. “We need to reunite it with its pod.”

Stranded orca calf remains in B.C. lagoon, breaching at regular intervals

Roughly 40 experts – including veterinarians, acoustics and drone specialists, heavy equipment operators and data imaging analysts – are gathered in Zeballos to do just that. Another team is collaborating on the outside waters, tracking the calf’s extended family to figure out where the prospects of reunification would be highest.

Even with all that combined experience, there is no single template for what they hope to do. Efforts to lure the calf out through the channel where its mother died have failed, and the next step is to corral it in a net. The details are still being worked out, but it would likely be hoisted in a sling to a container mounted on a truck, transferred to a ship, then moved to a pen in open water, where it would be released when a suitable pod of whales is in range. The transportation should take no more than four hours.

While the planning continues into the coming weekend, the team is monitoring the whale’s health. “It’s very active, the animal looks good,” Mr. Cottrell said. But “time is not on our side.”

Killer whales are highly social animals with strong family bonds, and this calf is too young to survive for any length of time on its own.

The rescue team initially hoped that bond could be used to lure the young whale out of the lagoon. The day after she died, they pulled the mother’s 10-tonne body out under the bridge at high tide, hoping the little one would follow into open water.

Next, they tried a “Pied Piper” trick. In 2018, Mr. Cottrell was called in to deal with a male Bigg’s killer whale that refused to leave Comox Harbour, on the east side of Vancouver Island. The whale was seeking interactions with people that put it and humans at risk. From a boat outside the harbour, the team played a recording of another Bigg’s whale that was known to be close to the one in Comox Harbour. The effect was instantaneous: He headed for the sound of his pal at full speed and didn’t come back.

Based on that success, the rescue team assembled in Zeballos dug out recorded vocalizations of a great-aunt of the calf, hoping the sound of her calls would lure it out of the lagoon in search of family.

It didn’t work. “Instead of being attracted, it took off to the far end of the lagoon and hid in the shallows,” Mr. Cottrell said. The trouble is, the researchers don’t know what the great aunt’s recorded message was.

The channel beneath the bridge is only passable for a brief period each day at a slack tide, when the water is high and calm enough for the whales to swim through. That window only lasts 20 minutes at best.

Two local First Nations, the Ehattesaht and the Nuchatlaht, are helping co-ordinate the rescue effort and are providing key resources.

Ehattesaht Chief Simon John has offered up his band offices in Zeballos as a base. First Nations’ relations with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are often strained, but he gave Mr. Cottrell a set of keys and access to the band’s extensive LiDAR data showing the underwater landscape, which will help guide the attempts to capture the whale.

In a ceremony, the Ehattesaht have named the calf kwiisahi?is, which translates as Little Brave Hunter. Mr. John said the tragedy of the mother’s death, and the collaboration to save its offspring, have forged important new partnerships.

He said his small nation is committing significant resources to the rescue operation because it has a cultural obligation to the killer whales that feature heavily in their origin stories. But he is mostly focused on present-day issues, and that includes a modern obligation to take care of an environment that has been battered by more than a century of heavy resource extraction in the region – fishing, logging and mining – that the local Indigenous communities had little influence over.

The logging bridge that has effectively created a death trap for whales is a symbol of that damage. Sitting in the band council office, the chief pulled up a high-resolution aerial photo from 1945 showing the entrance to the lagoon before the crossing was built. Back then, the channel was wide and deep, which would have allowed killer whales into the lagoon to hunt for seals and other marine mammals without peril.

“This whale is showing us a pathway,” Mr. John said. “We can achieve a process of reconciliation through relationships.”

John Ford, a leading expert on cetaceans off Canada’s West Coast, said the odds of the calf surviving if it can be united with another pod are good.

Most Bigg’s killer whales share a common dialect, and individuals are known to leave one pod and join another. ”So, if the little whale exits the lagoon, there’s a good possibility it would link up with another Bigg’s group, even if not its extended family,” he said.


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